Imagine, if you will, the Missouri basketball program felt under the weather. It was feverish, achy, congested, tired. It had a sore throat. It coughed and wheezed. It was bedridden.
Now you’ve experienced what befell the Tigers in 2013-14 as they miss out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
But went went wrong? What ailed Missouri so that it slipped from the field of the nation’s top 68 teams? For that, the program needs a trip to the doctor, where Maneater Sports analysts give blow-by-blow diagnoses of the team’s symptoms.
In Missouri’s embarrassing loss to Tennessee in the Tigers’ regular season finale, junior guard Jordan Clarkson was the lone player to reach double figures in the points column.
Where was the rest of Mizzou’s scoring output?
It’s a question that takes a direct shot at Missouri’s offensive depth, which seemed invisible at times this season. The Tigers had three players — Clarkson, junior guard Jabari Brown and senior guard Earnest Ross — average over 10 points per game this season, half as many double-digit scorers than last season.
The next highest scorer, freshman forward Johnathan Williams III, averaged just six points per game on the season.
The Tigers manifested this unbalanced style of play in a late-season blowout loss to Georgia. Brown and Clarkson accounted for more than half of Missouri’s 56 total points. Now-suspended senior forward Tony Criswell’s four points were the only helpers off the bench.
Missouri’s lack of depth added pressure to Brown and Clarkson, and as a result their production significantly slipped. In losses to Florida and Georgia, the duo went 10-for-27 and 9-for-29, respectively.
The antidote: point diversification. In Missouri’s statement win over Tennessee in mid-February, Ross, the forgotten member of the “big three” and Williams combined for 25 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
“Every one of those guys that played gave us something positive,” coach Frank Haith said. “It was great to see and we need that as we take a move forward.”
Well, at least Missouri basketball is top five in something.
The Tigers are averaging 19.1 personal fouls per game, the fifth most in the Southeastern Conference. That, plus the abundance of suspensions this season brings up a fundamental question: how detrimental has the team’s lack of focus been to its success?
At 6-foot-10 and 252 pounds, it’s inevitable that sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg might step on a few toes. Maybe even that he might accumulate 3.1 fouls per game. Following in Rosburg’s impossibly large footsteps, however, are freshman guard Wes Clark (the second-shortest player on Missouri’s roster) and Williams. Those two each averaged 2.7 fouls per game.
Perhaps the most notorious of all is Criswell. Despite only playing in 28 of the Tigers’ 32 regular season contests, Criswell recorded 2.1 fouls per game and leads the team in foul outs. He was also suspended for Missouri’s first two games of the season, both for an unspecified violation of team rules.
The Nov. 8 announcement of Criswell’s suspension came on the heels of Haith’s five-game suspension for “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance” as head coach at University of Miami. The NCAA alleged that Haith attempted to cover up student-athlete payoffs from Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Even newcomers Shane Rector and Torren Jones saw forced bench time with half-game suspensions.
Clark and Rector face new suspensions this week after being arrested for possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana.
In the final game of the regular season March 8, the Tigers fell 45-72 to a brutal Tennessee, placing high stakes on the conference tournament. Surely balancing on the bubble of NCAA tournament qualification would give Missouri some motivation to strengthen its mental resolve in the conference tournament.
Criswell didn’t make the trip to Atlanta, missing the Tigers’ March 13 SEC Tournament opener win over Texas A&M. Instead, he was due in court thanks to nearly $3,000 in unpaid rent.
Was Missouri’s backcourt the source of its illness this season? That’s tough to say. Offensively the Tigers certainly took care of business with the scoring trio of Ross, Brown and Clarkson ranking among the nations highest scoring trios, averaging a combined 51.5 points per game.
But despite the scoring production, the three didn’t share the ball as well. Together they combined for 210 assists the entire regular season, 30 less than former Tiger and current Boston Celtic Phil Pressey accounted for by himself last season. Keion Bell, Pressey’s backup a year ago, chipped in 52 dimes last season, making this year’s team look a lot less selfish.
Clarkson, who most often ran the point for Haith, also isn’t the floor general Pressey was. While Pressey averaged 11.9 points a game last season, he was able to move the Tigers around like chess pieces until he was satisfied with what he saw.
Clarkson has shown flashes of that ability and so has Clark. But the Tulsa-transfer Clarkson has been more burdened with the offensive load than Pressey; if he doesn’t score and assist, the Tigers don’t stand a chance.
Missouri ranked near the bottom in every type of assist statistic, but the real problem was that the offense was not exclusive enough.
Brown and Clarkson took the biggest loads of the offense. Both played more than 85 percent of the games and were used on more than a quarter of the team’s possessions while in the game.
Clarkson, however, saw a greater amount of the ball and took 30 percent of the team’s shots, which goes beyond the positional advantage a point guard has over a shooting guard. While Clarkson did have a substantial advantage in ending possessions with an assist, Brown’s shooting and ability to draw fouls add up to a greater offensive performer.
Brown should have taken the most shots for the Tigers. He led the SEC in scoring per game, ranked fifth in true shooting percentage, and reached the line more often than any other player on the team.
No. 11 seed Nebraska (19-11) is an example of how this offense could be effective. The Huskers ranked even lower than Missouri in assists, but were still successful due to Terran Petteway taking 32 percent of the shots. Brown (120.4 offensive rating) is even more effective than Petteway (103.4).
It isn’t a surprise that after this season, many Missouri basketball fans want Haith fired.
The team didn’t make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. In his three years of coaching, Haith has never brought the Tigers past the first round in the tournament. His recruits fly in and out through the revolving doors at Mizzou Arena.
To make matters worse, in late October 2013, Haith was suspended for five games, missing the home opener against Southeastern Louisiana.
Assistant Tim Fuller stepped in for Haith and won every game.
When he was coaching, Haith stripped his jacket multiple times as his team dropped half its games in conference play. Haith was called for a technical foul during a game lost against Kentucky at home, his first ever at Mizzou.
Haith will tell you, though, that it isn’t the lack of talent coaching or playing for Missouri.
“I think our league is better than what it’s perceived to be, I do,” Haith said. “It’s unfortunate, but I think we’ll continue to do what we do.”
A lot has been made of Missouri’s “big three.” Guards Brown, Clarkson and Ross averaged 70 percent of the Tigers’ scoring output. Missouri’s two starting forwards, Rosburg and Williams, scored just 15 percent of the team’s points.
That’s roughly half the production of Missouri’s starting big men the past two seasons. Both of those teams made the NCAA tournament.
In 2012-2013, Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi provided 33 percent of the team’s scoring. The year before that, Ricardo Ratliffe scored 17 percent of the team’s points as the only big man in the starting lineup.
But it didn’t stop with buckets. Bowers and Oriakhi averaged 14.5 rebounds per game, while Rosburg and Williams grabbed just 10.6 per game. Also, last year’s team as a whole rebounded 41.7 percent of its missed shots, while this year the Tigers grabbed 39.2 percent. It’s just 2.5 percent, but it can add up over the course of a year.
Now, Rosburg and Williams are still young. Rosburg greatly improved on his freshman campaign, while Williams’ ceiling remains higher than Mizzou Arena’s. That said, Missouri still didn’t get the paint production its become accustomed to the past two years.